MLS

There Is No D in TFC: Seattle Sounders on the Attack

The hype continues as the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC prepare for MLS Cup on Saturday.

Your humble blogger is all riled up for the chance to see the Boys in Rave Green bring home the Cup. I’ve dissed the East, I’ve tossed shade at MLS policy and now I’m gonna dissect our opponent, TFC.

When you think Toronto, you think Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley. Then you think, Oh crap. We’re in trouble. Giovinco isn’t just a brand name, the wee man has 78 points (G +A) in just 67 total MLS games. That’s right, Giovinco averages over a point a game. Altidore is no slouch either in his second stint in the league, with 37 in 54. This dominance was obvious to anyone who watched TFC’s offense in the Eastern Conference clinching victory last Wednesday. The Reds were en fuego: Altidore and Giovinco slicing and dicing, Bradley running box-to-box and the Reds scoring 5 goals and 7 on aggregate. Bonkers! Surely Seattle is quaking in their green boots at the prospect of facing that offensive juggernaut.

But Toronto needs a frightening attack because their backline has always been laughable. Defense is quite the unicorn in the 6ix. Coaches have come and gone, but before Greg Vanney this season, the Reds have always been generous. Since MLS adopted the 34 game schedule in 2011, TFC averages just over 53 GA a season, or 1.56 a game. This year, TFC only conceded 39 goals (for their first season with a sub-40 GA since ’11), really helped that average. In quick contrast, the Sounders are at 40 GA a season, 1.18 a game in that span.

This past offseason, after a 3-nil drubbing by Montreal in TFC’s first taste of the playoffs, the Reds spent a lot of time and money addressing this glaring weakness. Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Will Johnson (ohhhhhh I hates Will Johnson) and Clint Irwin were all brought in to be the yin to the Gio/Altidore/Bradley triumvirate’s yang.

So is this the new-look, defensive-minded Toronto Vanney had in mind? Not really. Toronto’s backline made Montreal’s attack look competent. TFC hemorrhaged 5 goals to the Impact in that series. Montreal, by no stretch of the imagination a potent attacking team (they scored 49, conceded 53), lit Toronto up! Part of that 7-5 score line can be chalked up to context: the Eastern Conference just plays fastbreak soccer. The East teams all score and ship goals with equal aplomb and the best matches feature arcade-like scores, just like the Toronto-Montreal treat. But yeah, Toronto ships goals.

Vanney knows his 3-5-2 alignment employs a very porous 3-man backline. Eriq Zavaleta is Toronto’s starting right back. One more time: Eriq Zavaleta is Toronto’s starting left back. A former forward who couldn’t get minutes for a CB-hungry team in Seattle (remember when we were trotting out Ianni and Hurtado and a defunct Djimi) is starting on the backline of the Eastern Conference champs. Vanney’s alignment lives and dies with the whole “the best defense is a good offense” cliché. If Seattle can pressure the fullbacks to retreat and make Toronto play a 5-3-2, it’s gonna be another long Toronto offseason hunting for defenders and excuses.

 

Seattle Sounders Still Undefeated in Kansas City*

The Seattle Sounders took the pitch a rag-tag team on Saturday. Playing a quality opponent, away, and without Evans, Ozzie, Oba, Deuce or Barrett, Seattle’s fortunes of getting a result were slim to none. Then the game started.

Seattle’s MASH unit gave Sporting Kansas City one helluva fight and a result, any result, would have been fair. But instead Ismail Elfath wrongly called Lamar Neagle offside and curiously thought Stefan Frei had no right to challenge a striker for a loose ball. And so, again in Kansas City, the Sounders lost one to the refs.

*Salazar screwed us in the 2012 USOC Final and now Elfath.

Saturday was a really rough day to be a Sounders fan. If you had told me before kickoff the Sounders would lose 1-nil, I would’ve shrugged and said, Not to shabby.” In my Bold Prediction post, I made a pessimistic assessment of Seattle’s chances. Now I feel ashamed for doubting our boys after they played their hearts out and have nothing to show for it. I made the mistake of thinking our team was just our best players. I was pleasantly reminded that we have quality all over the roster and one helluva coach.

The Sounders trotted out a throwback squad playing Sigi’s old flame, the 4-2-3-1. Sigi ain’t no fool, go with what works. The 4-2-3-1 works, he knows it and can coach the hell out of it. And Marco Pappa’s transcendent play didn’t hurt.

Pappa was the very best player on the pitch: tracking back, digging in on defense, creating chances, taking shots. If you’ve ever wondered what a team built around Pappa looked like, Saturday was an exhibition of the Seattle Marco Pappas. From his wide mid position (though of course he drifted in often), Pappa pulled the strings and created for Lamar Neagle.

ok. that's a little weird.

ok. that’s a little weird.

Neagle as the lone striker was interesting. I assumed he’d get a chance to shine, and he got that chance. He didn’t exactly shine though as he was unlucky with his finishing. Frankly Barrett would have been a better lone striker. Neagle is versatile because he can play defense and be effective from the midfield. Barrett is simply a striker and that is all Saturday’s formation needed.

I wonder if it would be crazy to play the 4-2-3-1 with Pappa, Dempsey and Oba behind Barrett. We still don’t have any true wingers, but keep trotting out the 4-4-2. We’d be sacrificing some possession and the newfound “defense first “ mentality, but getting all of our best attackers (sorry Neagle) on the pitch could pay dividends. Through this eleven we could easily shift formations between the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1. I know Seattle has experimented with a 4-3-3 (to mixed results) before, but that was before Pappa was so assimilated into the team. Just something to chew on.

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It’s a double post day! I’ll be back later with a USWNT post previewing their match with Australia.

 

Seattle Sounders at Kansas City: They Can’t All Be Winners

The Seattle Sounders fly east to take on Sporting Kansas City in a Western Conference showdown. It is still weird writing that: SKC is back in the Western Conference. I guess with the NFL’s Chiefs being in the AFC West and old rivals with the Seahawks, it isn’t too weird, but c’mon. Kansas City is almost 2000 miles away!

who banks all those frequent flyer miles?

who banks all those frequent flyer miles?

 

I’ve ranted and raved before about the seeming East Coast bias of the new alignment. We’ll have less travel in the CCL group stage (3950 to Tegucigalpa and 143 to Vancouver) than we will in our next two away games (1850 to KC and 2800 to Philly). The travel certainly won’t help a battered and bruise team.

The Sounders are in the thick of the injury bug, as you can add Chad Barrett to the list of walking wounded. Meanwhile SKC is getting healthy with Dom Dywer and Jacob Peterson looking to be back in the mix for Saturday’s match. So… the Sounders will probably be knocked down a peg this weekend, but hey, maybe Darwin Jones will see more than a few minutes. Maybe Roldan goes the while 90 as the once and future CM. And we may even see new signing Thomas Bedinelli, who Sigi said should be in the 18.

Bold Prediction: Normally I save my bold prediction posts for matchday. But with tomorrow being such a big soccer day, Champions League, World Cup and Sounders, oh my!, it’s time for something completely different.

It’s a big 6-pointer this weekend, so expect the top of the Wets to get crowded. Seattle sits at top with 26 points, while SKC is in a three-way tie for third at 21. An injury-riddled SKC played us tough in our house two weeks ago. Now the roles are reversed. Can Seattle repeat the Sporks’ gritty performance and play to zero? Escaping Sporting Park with a point would be awesome, but remember that the Sounders are still in a rough stretch of games. Let’s not overdo it boys. Play hard, give the young guys minutes and if you lose, que sera. As Billy Bob Thornton said in the immortal classic “Bad Santa,” they can’t all be winners, can they?

Seattle Sounders Roster Roulette

Roster roulette begins in earnest this weekend for the Seattle Sounders. The big news in soccer today was the resignation of FIFA tyrant/president Sepp Blatter. But in the Soundersphere, the turnover we’re worried about is Saturday’s starting 11.

Injury, suspension, call-ups and the circle of life are all conspiring to shorthand the Sounders. The team will be down 2 players, and possibly 5, this weekend. Brad Evans was called up to the USMNT for friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands. Ozzie Alonso was suspended by the MLS disciplinary committee for “violent conduct that endangered the safety of an opponent” due to a late-game challenge against NYRB. And honestly, Ozzie probably needs the rest. He played 260 of 270 minutes in an 8-day stretch. It showed last weekend, as Ozzie wasn’t his usual dominant self. On multiple occasions he was dispossessed or uncharacteristically turned the ball over on a sloppy pass.

Seattle is in a tight stretch of games and, with an aging roster fixture, congestion means injuries. Obafemi Martins elected to have surgery on his broken nose, and Sigi said there is a “chance he could be out.” Gonzalo Pineda missed the last two games with a tweaked ankle, and still may not be able to go this weekend. Lastly, Clint Dempsey’s availability is in question as his wife is pregnant and due any day now.

The starting 11 is very much in flux, but the position I am most interested in is striker. If one or both forwards can’t go, Chad Barrett will see another start. Maybe even Lamar Neagle could get some minutes up top. After hustling to cement his spot in the selection last season, Neagle only has 2 starts in the last 6 games. He has been playing like slightly warmed refuse lately, and seems rooted to the bench. This weekend may be a very good chance for him to rediscover his quality.

Despite verbally berating him from the cheap seats against Colorado, I am a Neagle fan. His presence makes a difference in the Sounders’ attack. As a hybrid midfielder/striker, he opens the final third. Take a gander again at this image from Pappa’s goal against NYRB.

the many headed hydra

the many headed hydra

With Oba pulled back into a more midfield role and Neagle swapped in at striker, the D has to man up on both Deuce and Neagle. Having two dangerous strikers occupying the centerbacks allows the crafty Oba and Pappa to find room and create. No other midfielder, not Rose or Roldan, can seamlessly switch to striker with similar effect. Hopefully Neagle can get his groove back, because when on, he is an indispensable head of the hydra. The big question is…

world class photoshopping

world class photoshopping

 

Seattle Sounders vs New York Red Bulls: Rapid Reaction

The Seattle Sounders won in cardiac attack fashion tonight, tacking on the go-ahead goal in stoppage time over the New York Red Bulls. Though supersub Chad Barrett got the credit for the goal, Clint Dempsey created it. Even on night where he was, as Taylor Twellman said “quiet,” Deuce changes games.

This game needed changing for us Sounders fans. New York completely outclassed Seattle for the first 45 minutes and bossed the game at times. As discussed last week, Jesse Marsch has his club playing quality soccer. Though their recent run of form doesn’t reflect this, the Red Bulls’ were a quality opponent and their play was worthy of a result. But then Marco Pappa happened.

The mercurial career Marco Pappa continues. Sometimes Pappa “forgets” to defend, sometimes he gets so cute with the ball he bungles a promising attack, and sometimes he is the definition of brilliance. Many times throughout the game, he made poor decisions and drove me mad. I felt his goal on Wednesday had him feeling cocky and sloppy and so a hindrance on the pitch. Even on the play that ended in his equalizing goal, he probably made the wrong decision. Neagle and Deuce had the centerbacks tied up, giving Pappa multiple options. His best was Oba open in the box. His next was Andy Rose completely unmarked and ready to make a far post run.

the many headed hydra

the many headed hydra

Pappa opted to keep. A little fool headed, but he got the goal and that’s what matters (I’ll write a longer post on Pappa this week).

Tonight we were a tired team starting an atypical lineup, but we got all three points. With results like tonight, we can be a special team this season. The difference between a draw and win in May matters in October. We need to defend the Shield.

 

Previewing the New Look Jesse Marsch New York Red Bulls

Morning Raving Readers and sorry for the late post. Last night I became entangled with last minute adventures in home ownership.

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These are the Seattle Sounders we’ve all been waiting for. The Sounders sit atop the table in both points and PPG. They have allowed the fewest goals in the league, 9, and are tied for the most scored, 18. Seattle displays the capacity to play attacking, possession-based soccer and gritty play-to-zero slugfests. After 12 games, it is a little too late to say it is too early. The Sounders look good and it matters.

This Sunday in Sodo our boys will have their first challenge as kings of the mountain when the New York Red Bulls come to town. Unlike recent seasons, I find it hard to dislike the New York Red Bulls. Maybe it is the new money kids in town, but my anger is dulling at their corporate name and unfortunate location.

I didn’t agree with the firing of Mike Petke however. Petke had taken a perennially underachieving club and turned them into winners. The 2013 Supporters’ Shield was NYRB first ever piece of silverware, a major accomplishment for an MLS original club. Last season, though NYRB slumped somewhat in the regular season, they made a deep playoff run only falling to New England 4-3 on aggregate in the Eastern Conference Finals. Petke was 30-19-19 in two seasons in North Jersey and his dismissal made no sense.

That said Jesse Marsch is a solid coach (and was pretty funny on those Road to Brazil features last summer on MLS.com.) You can’t argue that Marsch is winning with Petke’s squad. The 2015 roster has no Thierry Henry or Tim Cahill. BWP is still playing well, and the squad is clearly better with Sacha Kljestan, but they are playing different than when Titi ruled the roost.

in the not too distant future

in the not too distant future

The Red Bulls like to press and press and press. High pressure used to befuddle the hell out of the Sounders (think of those 2013 matchups with Portland). Not so much in 2015. With deft ball handlers on the backline (Evans, Mears, Marshall) Seattle is far less flustered by high pressure (*cough* Jhon Kennedy Hurtado *cough*) and able to exploit an opponent’s pesky forays.

Marsch says he’ll have his side attack. Maybe he thinks he can take advantage of a sleepy Sounders quad (it’ll be our third game in 8 days), because pressuring us at full strength just seems silly.

 

Tissuegate: Pareja Shaping the Narrative

As everyone knows, #Tissuegate happened. As all you readers know, I love to hate Caleb Porter. So it’s especially delicious to me that he is involved in this little scandal.

We all saw what happened, Dallas coach Oscar Pareja tried to hand some sort of paper to Porter immediately following his team’s loss to Portland. Porter throws the “paper” in Pareja’s face and storms off. Porter presented his take on the incident postgame, claiming:

“I walked over to shake his hand and he had a tissue that he put over his nose and tried to hand me a tissue… So I thought it was very poor sportsmanship out of him [Pareja]. I never said one word to him the whole game and he obviously wasn’t happy with the loss. But I’ve never had a coach come up and disrespect me like that. So that’s what happened.”

Now we’ve finally heard the other side of the story, albeit a bit late, from Pareja. Per Alexi Lalas, Pareja was merely showing, with a cute little prop joke, his frustration with Porter’s constant whining. Thus the crybaby’s tissue.

So who are we supposed to believe? Unsurprisingly, I am siding with Pareja here. Trying to hand a dude a rag covered in your snot is serious magnitude level of gross. Such an act is also not a universal sign of macho disrespect. If that was the only message Pareja wanted to convey, an easy crotch grab or middle finger would’ve sufficed. As lame as it was, I do think Pareja just thought he was being cheeky. And lord knows Porter can whine (and gloat and wax delusional) with the best of them.

However, in explaining his motives for in l’affaire du tissue Pareja lied through his teeth. There is no way he was trying to communicate some greater good to his fellow coaches. He was just pissed. End of story. Trying to shape the narrative that MLS is full of crybaby coaches is very disingenuous of the Dallas head man. Pareja is a good coach, for sure, but he also inspires flopoonery (that is his teams somehow excel at both flopping and gooing out). He clearly embraces shady gamesmanship. Shaping a narrative that gets opposing coaches self-conscious of arguing calls, or of communicating with the refs in general, is a win for FC Dallas. Dallas thrives on pushing the rules to the breaking point. If Pareja gets any single coach hesitating to voice displeasure with refs, he won.

Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy: 60-point Supertwins

Whether ballyhooed or much maligned, the home and home series between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders is set to kick off this weekend. No more distractions, no more excuses, just two teams ready to compete.

At the beginning of the season, the MLS schedule, especially Los Angeles’s, appeared to be made by a drunken bumpkin. In their first five league games, the Gals played Salt Lake and Vancouver twice (the odd game being against Chivas). And the back-to back with Seattle loomed at the end of the season as another odd scheduling anomaly. Well here we are and, well… it’s about to get real.

Seattle and Los Angeles will play for the first piece of MLS silverware, Supporter’s Shield, the top seed in the West, home field advantage throughout the playoffs, a CCL berth and historical vindication. But these teams have been competing all season. Since L.A. turned it on in late May, they’ve only lost three times (the most recent being last week in Frisco) and have been locked in a meta-fight with Seattle for league’s best. Every win brought L.A. closer to the table-topping Sounders. Fans of each team started scoreboard watching over a month ago, waiting and hoping for the other team to stumble. Neither disappointed.

Seattle and Los Angeles are both super teams. Both are on the verge of being historically great MLS teams, Seattle due to their potential win total and L.A. due to their goal differential. But as a pair, these two will also continue a historic trend.

This season is only the fourth time in the non-Shootout era that two teams will finish with greater than 60 points (coincidentally, and you already knew this, Seattle and Los Angeles were the pair that did so in 2011). And this season is the first time that the two 60-point super teams will settle the Shield directly on the pitch.

The shootout era ended in 1999. Beside 2011, 2012 and 2005 are the only other supertwin seasons. With three of these seasons coming in the last four years, we’re witnessing a changing era in MLS play. The consistent uptick in the number of dominant teams will continue as disparity increases. MLS is slowly starting to mirror soccer leagues around the world with more minnows and a few sharks. Expansion is one reason for this change. The talent pool gets thinner as the number of teams increases, thus a team’s scouting and coaching start to show much more. But the advent of the Designated Player rule is the chief cause of disparity in MLS and thus multiple 60-point teams.

Dominant seasons are directly correlated to the expanding DP rules. Though 2007 was the first year of the DP, 2010’s ruling allowed each team two DPs with a third available via a luxury tax (this limitation was cut in 2012). Now any team with the money can field international-caliber players as a third of their lineup. Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane have driven the Galaxy to their many victories, as have Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey for the Sounders. MLS is becoming a DP arms race. After Keane made short work of Seattle in the Western Conference finals, it was no secret Seattle wanted “their own Keane” and pursued Oba. These players all have a legitimate claim to “best player in MLS,” and Oba and Keane are battling it out for league MVP. None of these stars (except Landycakes, of course) would’ve given MLS a sniff if the money wasn’t right.

MLS still has a strict and stable salary cap. Complementing stars with quality non-DP players is still important, as Gyasi Zardes and Lamar Neagle are key cogs for both teams’ attacks. Both are potent scorers whose stats are padded because of the attention opponents need to pay to the stars. However, the CBA expires at the end of this season and rumor has it that the salary cap will increase greatly and a potential fourth DP will be allowed. If this occurs, we can expect more supertwin seasons, and maybe even a big four-esque status quo.

Whether MLS will be ballsy enough to schedule future supertwins in a home-and-home series to end the season remains to be seen. This season, we are lucky. Seattle and Los Angeles get to settle a season long debate. And the Sounders get a shot at revenge.

MLS and Its Spotty Glory

The Pacific shroud had settled inland and upon Greater Los Angeles. Unseasonably cool in Carson, the few fans zipped their hoodies or downed their beer jackets watching the Seattle Sounders finish yeoman’s work in dispatching an apathetic opponent away on a Wednesday night in front of maybe 400. American soccer totem and Seattle forward Clint Dempsey was the last Sounder spared, coming off the pitch in the 87th minute of a nearly meaningless game. Dempsey has played for big clubs in Europe and around the globe in the World Cup, but tonight he was just sweat-soaked and tired. He raised his hands to applaud his few supporters and clocked out of work.

Last Wednesday’s game in Carson shows what it’s like to be a pro in MLS. The glory is, at best, spotty in American soccer. Dempsey moved from the soccer cradle of the EPL to empty stadiums in the suburbs. The Stubhub Center was abandoned, like other stadiums in retread MLS cities. It’s easy to think how glamorous being a pro athlete would be: money, travel, playing a child’s game for a living, but when you fly week after week to dead arenas and (pardon the sports cliché) “have to get up” for a game against a despondent team in a deserted park midweek… sheesh. They ain’t all Timbers-Sounders kids. Yet. I still believe that soccer has nowhere to go but up in this country. I know this is an easy position to take, but people thought the same thing in 1976 and where did the NASL go? American soccer will survive if MSL focuses on slow, steady growth.

MSL hasn’t guaranteed its long-term future yet. Recent moves, expansion and loosening salary constrictions, are proving strong signs of life, but the league can’t maintain draining clubs such as Chivas. It is like an infection. the more Dempseys and Bradleys we bring in, great press and stories, but we must focus on stable, measurable stats. Attendance numbers have dwindled for the L.A. Galaxy since Beckham left (he was that important) and TFC failed at throwing money around and dissolved into a useless puddle again. These are some big markets with flagship franchises and they are not yet thriving. So slow the roll on your bullish take, MLS needs to focus on cleaning house before inviting more people to the party. The opposite of what it is currently doing in the Southeast, handing out franchises like it’s Halloween.

It’s scary to think how successful an expansion Chivas USA was. Like the Sounders after them, Chivas came out like gangbusters only missing the playoffs in their first year. They qualified for the playoffs four seasons straight, 2006-2009, winning the West in 2007. This franchise used to have All-Stars and Coach of the Years. They used to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League and send players to big-time European clubs (Brad Guzan) and the USMNT (Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan). This was a proud, growing club once upon a time. So don’t ask for whom the bell tolls Orlando and Atlanta, entropy and apathy can happen anywhere. MLS must set their house in order and do the right thing by Chivas USA: find solid, committed owners who’ll keep the team in the West and produce a winning culture. If not, shades of the NASL may arise.

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